Three for the Read

Furious Improvisation:
How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands
Made High Art out of Desperate Times
(Sue Quinn, 2009)

In case you’re suffering frustration fatigue from the 24/7 tug-of-war between a president who hopes to improve our options and a Congress locked in bitter debate over how (or if) to do it, there is something you can do to recharge your batteries for activism―right here, right now.

furious improvisationJust plug them into the WPA and read Sue Quinn’s electrifying account of Roosevelt’s arts and economics agenda, and especially how the Federal Theatre project (and many other now-forgotten benefits of his administration) launched Orson Welles, John Houseman, and a bulging A-list of writers, directors, and dreamers whose legacy remains pervasive today.

The Federal Theatre project was led by Hallie Flannagan, (talk about a life!), and once you get into the story, Quinn’s talent and energy make it very hard to leave. Flannagan, charming and beautiful, was the product of a mid-Western education and had run the theatre program at Vassar; her achievements were possible because natural tact and a fierce refusal to be stonewalled permitted her to prevail where others would not tread.flanagan3 She is herself a fascinating subject, but Quinn also skillfully weaves her into a narrative that includes the backstage fireworks of political drama as FDR and his advisors struggle to enact the very programs that no one today would advocate giving up; social security, unemployment insurance, TVA, etc.

The viciousness of the conflicts behind the scenes and the fervor of the opposition to FDR’s programs have an all-too painful relevance to the breaking news from Washington. Sounds familiar? Do something! Sue Quinn has done her homework, and is able to translate it into a page-turner with tremendous power, brilliant set pieces, and some very funny anecdotes to season the heat.

Friends Who Lend…..

There’s nothing more satisfying than a book lent by a friend who can really zero in on your sensibilities. It may not sell books initially, but there’s a potent catalysis down the line when you’re finished and start beating the drum or (better) giving copies as gifts. So, to Linda, I owe heartfelt thanks for putting me on to…

The Orientalist (Tom Reiss, 2005)
What a tale of intrigue, suspense, death-defying escapes, serial identities, and mysteries! orientalistAll of it true! The adventures of Essad Bey/Kurban Said (aka Lev Nussimbaum) would not be possible today, but he flourished in the early years of the 20th century, when anything was possible and (to paraphrase the famous line from Sunset Boulevard), “they had lives then.” To learn enough to send you off to the nearest bookstore to buy a copy, go to

And to Nadine…for River of Shadows (Rebecca Solnit, 2003). This book is more or less a biography of Eadweard Muybridgeriver od shadows (aka Edward James Muggeridge). But it’s really a revelation of how Muybridge’s motion studies of men and beasts (intersecting with Greenwich Mean Time and the invention of steam travel) sped us into the modern age and the movies. The rest is history, and it doesn’t get any better than this elegant, poetic, deep and engrossing pleasure. Just go to for a priceless review, add it to Furious Improvisation and The Orientalist in your cart, and press send.

All three available in paperback. 

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